post-game analysis

Was Winning Time a Loss Or a Victory?

Photo: Warrick Page/HBO

Sunday’s season-two finale of HBO’s Winning Time turned out to be a series finale. As Vulture’s Joe Adalian reported, HBO canceled the series shortly before the finale aired, which meant that its producers had to pivot to an alternate ending: While the season-two finale originally sent to critics closed with a shot of a devastated Magic Johnson in the shower following the L.A. Lakers’ championship loss to the Boston Celtics, the revised version concluded with a conversation between Jerry and Jeanie Buss about the future of the Lakers franchise, followed by a montage explaining what ultimately happened to all of Winning Time’s principal characters.

Even though the cancellation was not entirely unexpected, the modified episode made for a pretty abrupt ending to what once was viewed as HBO’s next big prestige show. In an effort to parse that ending in light of what the series achieved — and didn’t — Vulture critics Jen Chaney and Nicholas Quah, who stuck with Winning Time until its sudden, untimely ending, got together for a little postgame analysis.

Jen Chaney: I don’t know how a hastily added epilogue to an episode not designed as a series finale could have come across as anything other than tacked on, but Winning Time’s was especially, glaringly tacked on. The scene with Jerry and Jeanie — where they gleefully shout “We fucking own this” while lying in the middle of the arena now known as the Kia Forum — was such a tonal shift from the preceding scene of Magic in the shower following the Lakers’ bruising 1984 championship loss to the Celtics that I think I cracked a couple of vertebrae while watching it.

The montage that follows only underlined further how much of the Lakers’ story still remained untold. Reducing Magic Johnson’s battle with HIV to a title card that reads simply, “After Magic was diagnosed with HIV in 1991, one of his first phone calls was from Larry Bird,” doesn’t quite capture the magnitude of that chapter in the story. And yet, I am not sure we needed a third season of Winning Time. Nick, how do you feel about the ending, both what aired on HBO and also the fact that there won’t be any more episodes of this ambitious but flawed series?

Nick Quah: As a wrap-up to the series, the Jerry and Jeanie scene was a sweet moment, but yeah, given the cancellation and the overarching shape of the show, which was clearly gunning to span Magic’s whole career, there’s no way that ending was going to be anything other than jarring.

You know, I’m bummed we’re not going to get more Winning Time, even as I can broadly intuit why it didn’t attract a larger audience. I’m all for ambition and weirdness, and Winning Time was nothing if not those two things. Was it too self-indulgent? Sure. But it felt like nothing else on television, which is perhaps both its greatest strength and weakness. The show really did try to pursue a grand vision of how this sports franchise bottled up the political and cultural energy of its era. It’s also a smart, frisky depiction of how on-court action is the direct result of whatever happens in the institution above; less Hoosiers than Moneyball, but with more drugs and sweat.

That said, this second season was a huge mess. Entering its second run, Winning Time had to solve two narrative puzzles. First, it had to continue clearing its preexisting hurdle of not simply being a recitation of the Lakers’ Wikipedia entry; second, it had to find a new engine to give the story momentum after a debut season that culminated in a championship. The season was weaker on the first point compared to the last time around, and simply never figured out the second. The engine thing is particularly challenging given the magnitude and difficulty of Jerry’s goal to build a dynasty. In order to get there, the organization does have to be pushed into a humbled place. But the aim of building a dynasty is a lot more narratively abstract than simply “winning a season,” and it shows.

JC: One of the big reasons season two felt so muddled to me is because it was not clear who the protagonist was. Season one featured a large ensemble and followed numerous characters, but having Jerry Buss at the center of it anchored the narrative a bit. Jerry did not feel like the protagonist in season two — if it was anyone, it was probably Magic Johnson, which makes sense, but the focus on him was obscured by the season’s fixation on covering the details of so many games and turning its energy to the issues plaguing other characters, such as Paul Westhead. It skimmed the surface of a lot of things — Magic’s relationship with his eventual wife Cookie, Jeanie Buss’s ambitions, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s frustrations — but never dug deeply enough to provide significant insight into any of it.

It was also inconsistent from a stylistic standpoint. The whole breaking-the-fourth-wall thing got a fair amount of play in the season’s early episodes, then the show kind of abandoned that approach, then brought it back toward the end in a way that felt jarring. And the women in the series were sidelined to a much more extreme degree in the second season. Like, I almost forgot Gaby Hoffmann was even in this thing until Claire came back — with a vengeance — to scream at Jerry in the finale. I would have liked to see more of Gaby Hoffman screaming!

NQ: One hundred percent. Gaby Hoffman in a front-office executive role is very fun, and she was egregiously underused as a professional foil to Jerry. Winning Time’s handling of Jeanie was also a huge bummer this season. In many respects, Jeanie started to feel like the primary protagonist-in-waiting by the end of season one, and the fact that she’s currently the owner and president of the Lakers — having taken over when her dad died in 2013 — sets up this endpoint for a lot of viewers. We ambiently know we’re watching her become someone very important in the organization. But the lack of substantial focus given to Jeanie this season meant that in this stretch of the story she largely comes off as yet another woman vying for Jerry’s attention. Which is bad enough, but it additionally flattens her with Honey, a new character added this season who’s supposed to serve as a composite character for several real-life women in Jerry’s life. The stuff between Jerry and Honey is the weakest storyline across the seven episodes of this shortened season, and it really takes away time that could’ve been better spent elsewhere.

A lot of this trouble with depth is linked to the sheer sprawl of this season. You’re right, it’s hard to get a feel for who is the anchor, and the cast of characters is perhaps too large to manage with any narrative efficacy, especially for a show like Winning Time that doesn’t appear to be interested in operating with a sense of economy. But the problem also stems from the show’s inconsistent relationship with time. We jump across the season in a manner that seems closer to dream logic than anything else, and consequently, very little room exists for us to feel much in terms of where each character is going, what’s happening to them, and what’s evolving between each person.

Yet, I’ll admit, I remained transfixed all the same. As much as I did not like the second season, I couldn’t stop watching, and frankly, it’s a testament to how good these performances are. The arc between Pat Riley and Paul Westhead is one of the few things that unambiguously works, and I think it’s primarily because Adrien Brody and Jason Segel are doing such great work with each other: simmering, subtle, sad. (Is this Segel’s career-best performance?) Oh, and I loved Sean Patrick Small’s Larry Bird. So weird, so unkempt, so oily. Did anybody stand out to you in particular?

JC: Adrien Brody definitely was superb as Pat Riley and did more than anyone in the cast to evoke the pressure everyone on the team was under, and how mind-bogglingly weird it could be to work within that organization. (Having a sort-of promotion announced at a press conference before the details of said promotion have been discussed: not ideal management on the part of Jerry Buss!)

My feelings about Bird are more mixed, however. Small was a great choice in terms of physical presence, but like many things in Winning Time, Bird’s characterization was a bit confusing. The third episode of this season humanizes him by giving us more of Bird’s backstory, but then the writers abandon that approach and go back to acting like he’s basically a serial killer, with the exception of the scene in the finale with his mom. I can’t tell if the show wants me to root for Bird, against him, or just humanize him as an antagonist. It’s confusing.

Quincy Isaiah was also very well cast as Magic, which is why it’s extra-disappointing that the series never got to explore the ramifications of Johnson’s HIV diagnosis. This feels like a massive oversight since it was alluded to in the very first scene of the series, and early in this season as well, with scenes that depicted Magic’s sexual dalliances with numerous women. It was surprising to read in Joe’s piece that producer Kevin Messick said “perhaps” the show would have eventually delved more deeply into Johnson’s battle with AIDS. The series felt like it was leading us to that critical turning point for him and his career with the Lakers but never got there, and I can’t imagine it would have avoided going there in future seasons.

Which brings me to a possibly controversial statement: I think Winning Time would have been better if it had been structured as a single-season limited series. Obviously there’s a lot of story there, but I don’t think it’s the kind of story that needs to be told over multiple seasons. The Last Dance was focused on the Chicago Bulls’ 1997-1998 season, but it also pulled from so much of the team’s history and the perspectives of so many players that it felt like a very thorough look at a particular era. That’s what I was hoping for, in scripted form, from Winning Time.

NQ: At the risk of sounding too much like an Armchair Showrunner, I think many of the show’s mechanical weaknesses could’ve been solved if Winning Time was structured more as an anthology across the Showtime Lakers era. Even with its bizarro relationship with time, the show still ended up being overwhelmingly literal with respect to the timeline — as if it felt like it needed to go “this led to this, which led to this, which led to this.”

If you’ll allow me to lean into the Armchair Showrunner bit a little further: Boy, I would’ve loved if Winning Time was a straight-up anthology show where each season covered a big era of the NBA. The Bad Boy Pistons. The Jordan Bulls. Vlade Divac’s disastrous GM-ing of the Sacramento Kings. Yao Ming versus Shaq? Of course, the problem there is that HBO would consistently run into new conflicts with the season’s real-world counterparts again and again. The second season of this Winning Time already felt like it was pulling its punches compared to the first, and the fact that we’ve gone from Jerry West publicly threatening to take Jason Clarke’s portrayal of him “all the way to the Supreme Court” to Jeanie Buss appearing on the show’s official companion podcast suggests that some sort of behind-the-scenes peace agreement was probably brokered. In that light, maybe it’s good that Winning Time ended here, instead of the show evolving into a scripted Hard Knocks. One thing’s for sure, though: Winning Time ending on a Larry Bird win feels, um … thematically apt.

JC: Honestly, that’s very much in line with what Winning Time is and was: An inconsistent show about some of the most significant NBA figures of the 20th century ends without really giving us an ending.

Was Winning Time a Loss Or a Victory?